Five starters are gone from the lineup. Three of them were premium players.
The Steelers began losing players at midseason, when starting safety Ryan Clark was lost for the season to an illness. He was replaced, of course, by the now infamous Anthony Smith. I think we all know how that turned out.
Starting fullback Dan Kreider was next to hit the exit button. A big loss? Well, it didn't appear that way on the surface, but the Steelers' running game has always employed a lead blocker and much of the Steelers' inability to run between the tackles can be traced to Kreider's absence.
About the same time Kreider went bye-bye, left tackle Marvel Smith began experiencing back problems that caused him to miss four games. Smith underwent back surgery last week and his absence has become the most major of problems for the Steelers, since his backup, Max Starks, was lost for the season this past Sunday with a knee injury. Trai Essex, an untested third-year player who has been active for only two games this season, the last two, steps in at left tackle against the Jaguars on Saturday night.
Defensive end Aaron Smith was lost for the season the week of the Jaguars' first trip to Pittsburgh. He is the team's best defensive lineman. Some Steelers think he's the team's best defensive player. His loss has been devastating, mostly because the Steelers don't have a Rob Meier to take his place. That's the biggest difference between the Steelers and the Jaguars. The Jags have depth; the Steelers don't.
The crowning blow was the loss of running back Willie Parker two weeks ago. At the time, he was the league's leading rusher. He was one half of a very effective one-two punch and gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the balance any quarterback needs. The Steelers don't have that balance now and Roethlisberger is expected to throw the ball 40 times or more on Saturday.
Yeah, the Steelers are a mess. They were touched up for 28.5 points per game in the last four weeks of the season, and the Jaguars ran over them for 224 yards rushing three weeks ago. It was a day of such embarrassment for a proud franchise that it caused rookie coach Mike Tomlin to order all TV sets at Steelers headquarters this week to show continual replay of the game.
This is a game the Jaguars should win. On paper, it looks like a mismatch. Heinz Field's soft playing surface would even seem to favor the Jaguars. The Steelers, however, maintain one and probably their only distinct advantage: They are the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A long time ago, in what now seems to have been another lifetime, I covered that team and I remember a day when the Steelers won a road game despite a horrible performance. After the game, Joe Greene was asked how the Steelers were able to win despite having played so poorly. Greene looked up at us, paused for dramatic effect and then said: "We won because we are the Pittsburgh Steelers."
It's the only thing the Steelers will have going for them this Saturday: their pride, their tradition, their mystique. That's the Jaguars' true opponent.
Here are 10 things the Jaguars have to do to win on Saturday.
- Hold onto the ball—One interception nearly cost the Jaguars the last game. Ball security is job one.
- Rush the passer—It's likely to be all Ben all the time, and that puts a premium on the pass-rush.
- Run the ball—The Steelers will load up against it. If the Jaguars are able to run with any semblance of the success they had against the Steelers on Dec. 16, the Jaguars could win comfortably.
- Play with poise—The Steelers are a playoff-experienced team. The Jaguars are not. Poise in the playoffs is critical. The Jaguars have to find it early in this game.
- Get a lead—It would keep the Steelers from gaining momentum.
- Win the QB battle—The team that does usually wins, and that's especially true in the playoffs. Postseason performance is the true mark of a quarterback.
- Be special—Jaguars special teams played horribly in the last meeting between the two teams. The Steelers have had major problems on special teams this season and the Jaguars should enjoy a major advantage in this aspect of the game.
- Win the physical battle, again—The Jaguars are the more physical team. This should be a given.
- Beware Holmes—Santonio Holmes is the Steelers' home-run hitter. He has the kind of speed and athletic talent that should be feared and respected.
- Seize the moment—This is the Jaguars' portal to so many good things. This is a game that could deepen the roots of professional football in Jacksonville. This is a game that could truly earn the Jaguars national respect. A win would likely send the Jaguars to New England for a chance to make history. A loss would ruin everything.